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The childishness of grown-ups

Why there is no sensible debate of immigration

Artillery Row

The grown-ups are back in the room; we can all breathe a sigh of relief. After first Boris and then Liz Truss, it’s been declared that Rishi Sunak’s ascent to No.10 marks a return to grown-ups in government. Those making the declaration, very plainly, consider themselves grown-ups and are therefore equipped to decide who is and isn’t a grown-up.

Braverman has now been denounced by all the grown-ups

Boris Johnson wasn’t a grown-up (this wasn’t that controversial). Liz Truss wasn’t a grown-up (“Pork Markets”). Theresa May seemingly was a grown-up (who could argue otherwise?) but let her government be taken over by non-grown-ups so she doesn’t count.

What makes a grown-up is never quite clear. Whilst Boris certainly provides the negative image — the anti-grown-up, if you will — the qualifications are left vague, and the jury can sometimes seem arbitrary in its rulings. Hence, the new ministry of all the grown-ups was gathering pace when the new Prime Grown-up seemed to err, in re-appointing Suella Braverman as Home Secretary. 

On a first glance, Sunak might have been forgiven for thinking that Braverman would have the makings of a grown-up: a former Attorney General of two years’ standing, she’s a barrister. On social media they are the veritable nobility of grown-ups, their pronouncements widely shared and discussed.

But Braverman has now been denounced by all the grown-ups who know a grown-up when they see one. Her brief tenure as Liz Truss’ new Home Secretary was shorter even than her Prime Minister’s time at the top. At the time, her exit sprang from two causes: she made an error, sharing a draft written ministerial statement with a fellow MP, and she clearly disagreed with the Prime Minister’s intended policy direction of dramatically increasing Britain’s already record-breaking levels of immigration. 

All that was controversy enough, but Sunak’s reappointment has brought forward a flood of revelations about just how not grown-up Braverman is. She held secret meetings with an “anti-woke” MP and read a report from a think-tank. You or I might consider these everyday tasks for a minister, but apparently it’s a sign of her severe unsuitability. She leaked market-sensitive information, although nobody can identify what was market-sensitive about the leak that she made.

The reaction of the grown-ups to Braverman’s appointment suggests that once they take against somebody they relish making up stories to cause trouble for them. Lots of finger-pointing and wailing though, when challenged, the accusations often don’t have a lot of substance. It’s all … well, a bit childish, really.

In fairness, some of the grown-ups were not drawn into these games. Steve Richards, veteran political journalist and, as the performer of the live show Rock’N’Roll politics, a keen-eyed expert in “grown-up politics”, dismissed Braverman’s reappointment immediately as meaning “no grown up conversation on immigration and dire labour shortages will be possible”. 

I think we can all agree with Richards’ lament for a missing grown-up conversation, but it’s interesting that our self-appointed grown-ups’ understanding of that conversation seems rather juvenile. Even in his lament, it is clear that there is only one outcome that Richards will accept, and he’s not alone in that. If you try to engage a lot of our grown-ups in a conversation about immigration, they give you a monosyllabic answer: “more”. On immigration they are no better than children in a sweet shop.

The grown-up answer to immigration is always ‘more’

We’ve seen it again and again these past few years. If anything, the time before grown-ups lapse to their monosyllable has grown ever shorter. Even the simple question of how much immigration Britain can sustain, and whether there are any limits that we should put in place seems to end up with that reaction. Often our grown-ups will avoid answering directly, but if ever they deem it necessary to lower themselves to talk with the rest of us, the answer is always “more”: there should be no limits of any kind, and special outrage is placed on anybody who tries to reduce the availability of their sweet treat of new arrivals from overseas.

You can try to work in an alternative way of looking at the subject. Maybe you could ask about whether adding millions more migrants in addition to the more than 5 million net arrivals these past 25 years, might be placing a burden on Britain’s tottering infrastructure and its now incredibly expensive housing? Here, the hope is not to discuss quantity, but to engage grown-ups in critical thinking — something they love to promote. If you try this different kind of question, you’ll always end up coming back to the same reaction: “more” is the answer, and no, they’re not referring to infrastructure investments.

Maybe you could argue that its consequences aren’t quite what they think, appealing to their sense of the common good? You could argue that those many millions of new arrivals haven’t brought the economic boom that was promised for Britain, which has long since lapsed into low growth stagnation, and that should maybe make us think about whether more would be better? They might not be able to marshal any statistics or studies to engage in that discussion, but that doesn’t matter: the grown-up answer in the grown-up conversation about immigration is always “more”.

You could even try one last tactic. You could say maybe we should have fewer of certain migrants — perhaps the low-skilled, or those who have committed crimes in this country or other countries. But what would be the point? The grown-up answer will always end up meaning “more”, after they’ve patronised you by explaining that no migrants are ever really unskilled, and no migrants could ever have committed crimes, otherwise the British state would have removed them. Grown-ups also believe in fairy tales.

One last thing. Grown-ups are big fans of some of what used to be called our broadsheet newspapers — The Times or The Guardian especially. If you look up a story on immigration in any one of them, about how more migrants are coming into the country often illegally or because of some quirk of the law, you’ll often see grown-ups gleefully explaining how Leave voters won’t like this, and they’ve brought it all upon themselves. It doesn’t even matter whether the story is objectively good or bad, or whether they in fact approve, the grown-ups descend to join the fun — the point is the other side, the non-grown-up side, seem to be losing. If you didn’t know by now, that’s how a grown-up behaves, and the Leave voters? They should just suck it up.

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